From position battles to top prospects: What to watch in this week’s ESPN spring training games

Let’s watch some baseball! ESPN kicks off MLB spring training with telecasts of four games over four consecutive days, beginning with Monday’s New York MetsSt. Louis Cardinals contest from Jupiter, Florida. Just to get that blood flowing, let’s check in with a little preview of all four games.

Monday: Mets at Cardinals (1 p.m. ET)

Mets spring storyline to watch: Well, there’s the question of whether the solid gold uniform buttons and belt buckles will hinder the Mets on the bases, but let’s go with the battle at third base between veteran Eduardo Escobar and rookie Brett Baty, the No. 20 player on Kiley McDaniel’s preseason top 100 prospects list. Escobar was OK last year, but not so good that it prevented the Mets from initially agreeing to a deal with Carlos Correa to replace him. Baty was one of the best hitters in the upper minors last season, slashing .315/.410/.533 and earning a promotion to the Mets that ended after a few games with a torn ligament. Look for Baty to win the job and Escobar to slide into a utility role.

Player to watch: David Peterson is the scheduled starter for the Mets and while he’s presumably sixth in the rotation depth chart behind Carlos Carrasco, he had a solid 2022 season and will certainly start at some point this season — whether the Mets use a six-man rotation at times or if he’s needed because of injury.

Cardinals spring storyline to watch: No team has as much outfield depth as the Cardinals have with Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and every stathead’s breakout favorite, Lars Nootbaar, penciled in as the likely starters. O’Neill will try to find his 2021 form and Carlson went on a 5,000-calories-a-day diet in the offseason to add some weight after wearing down last season. The Cardinals also have International League batting champ Alec Burleson (.331/.372/.532 for Memphis) and top prospect Jordan Walker, who hit .306 with 19 home runs in Double-A at age 20. Certainly, there will be some DH at-bats for this group alongside Juan Yepez.

Player to watch: Let’s hope Walker is in the lineup. With Nolan Arenado entrenched at third base, Walker played some right field in the minors, where he has a chance to be pretty good — he fired a 99.5-mph rocket in the Arizona Fall League and racked up nine assists in just 24 games in Double-A — and he moves pretty well for a guy his size (6-foot-5, 220 pounds). While it seems likely he will start the season in Triple-A, a big spring will put pressure on the Cardinals to start him in the majors similar to what happened with Julio Rodriguez and the Mariners last season. As a comparison, Walker hit .306/.388/.510 in the Texas League. For comparison’s sake: In the same league at the same age in 2021, J-Rod hit .362/.462/.546 (in 46 games).

Tuesday: Astros at Mets (1 p.m. ET)

Astros spring storyline to watch: With Justin Verlander now on the Mets and Lance McCullers already out for Opening Day with a forearm strain, the Astros’ rotation depth suddenly looks a little precarious. They still have five starters with rookie Hunter Brown (No. 41 on Kiley’s top 100), but now it’s more important to find the next starter in line — especially since the Astros used a six-man rotation at times last season. Candidates include former top prospect Forrest Whitley plus Brandon Bielak, Shawn Dubin and J.P. France.

Player to watch: With Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy all participating in the World Baseball Classic, those other starting pitchers will get a long look in regular spring training action. It has been a long time since Whitley had his breakout season in the minors in 2017, and he had a 6.53 ERA in 40 innings in the minors last season (his first work since 2019), but the Astros are still holding hope that he can stay healthy and figure things out.

Wednesday: Nationals at Yankees (1 p.m. ET)

Nationals spring storyline to watch: Name tags. With the young players, veteran fill-ins like Dominic Smith and Jeimer Candelario, non-roster invitees (Matt Adams! Michael Chavis! Alex Colome! Old friend Sean Doolittle!) and occasional call-ups from minor league camp, the Nationals will spend a lot of time just learning everyone’s names. With a slew of veteran non-roster invitees besides those listed above (Anthony Banda! Yadiel Hernandez! Chad Kuhl! Lucius Fox!) there are probably a few jobs to be won.

Player to watch: CJ Abrams had a ton of prospect helium in his Padres days, ranking in the top 10 on various lists entering 2022. His rookie season split between the Padres and Nationals was underwhelming as he hit .246/.280/.324, showing little pop and most disturbingly a 50-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. A 1.7% walk rate isn’t going to cut it even with decent bat-to-ball skills. It’s worth noting his lack of minor league experience due to the COVID shutdown and injuries, but unless he improves his discipline and adds strength he could end up as the shortstop version of Billy Hamilton.

Yankees spring storyline to watch: Who wins the shortstop job? Who wins the left-field job? Who wins the third-base job if it’s not Josh Donaldson? The Yankees have a lot of moving parts with Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Oswald Peraza and top prospect Anthony Volpe (No. 3 on Kiley’s top 100) fighting it out for shortstop; Oswaldo Cabrera can play in the infield or outfield; and don’t forget DJ LeMahieu is back. Aaron Boone even suggested the other day that he might give Aaron Judge some reps in left field, in case the club wants to play Giancarlo Stanton in the less roomy right field at Yankee Stadium. These are good problems to have and this stuff often sorts itself out, but it does seem like the shortstop decision in particular will be a vital one.

Player to watch: Volpe. He has played in just 22 games above Double-A, so there is no need to rush him. That appears to be the logical decision as, despite a broad range of skills (he hit 21 home runs and swiped 50 bases last year), he also hit just .249 and had nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks. A little seasoning in Triple-A to continue improving his overall offensive game makes sense.

Thursday: Phillies at Red Sox (noon ET)

Phillies spring storyline to watch: The back end of the bullpen. With holdovers Seranthony Dominguez and Jose Alvarado, plus new experienced closers in Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto, manager Rob Thomson will have to sort out the initial pecking order. Thomson showed his flexibility on roles last postseason as Zach Eflin, Alvarado and Dominguez all earned saves. One thing about this: There will be no shortage of upper 90s fastballs. The question is whether these relievers will throw enough strikes, and whether the two new guys will be consistent.

Player to watch: Pitcher Andrew Painter doesn’t turn 20 until April and he’s not yet on the 40-man roster, but he has been invited to big league camp — a clear indication that the Phillies believe he has chance to impact the team later this season — if not sooner. He has made only five starts above Class A, but note what Kiley wrote in naming Painter No. 10 on his prospects list: “Now buzz is growing that Painter might break camp with the big league team this spring, as GM Dave Dombrowski remains one of few GMs in the league not trying to win a gold medal in the Service Time Olympics.”

Red Sox spring storyline to watch: Just one? OK, it begins with the starting rotation — a list that includes Chris Sale, James Paxton, Nick Pivetta, Garrett Whitlock, Corey Kluber and perhaps Tanner Houck and Brayan Bello. Sale and Paxton will have to show they’re healthy and Whitlock will be given a chance to become a full-time starter. Everyone is already condemning the Red Sox to fifth place in the AL East — or maybe fourth — so the rotation will have to surprise.

Player to watch: Bello is an intriguing guy. He got hit around a bit as a rookie (75 hits in 57.1 innings) but allowed just one home run while averaging 96-97 with his fastball and had strong numbers in the minors. He could eventually become an impact contributor in 2023 — either as a starter or in relief.

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